As spring settled into the Nashville area, Grace Madison felt a stab of joy in seeing the bright colors in jonquils and tulips, massing in unexpected places; the pale green buds on the trees; and the bravely sprouting blades of grass in the neighborhood lawns. Spring had always been her favorite season. She was still hanging in there, as she explained to well-meaning friends like Tessa Wenger and her boss Rob Hendrickson, who were concerned with her well-being, no doubt fearing another suicide attempt. But even though Grace had refused to see a therapist, saying she would be too bored talking about herself at length, she met frequently with her regular doctor, a kindly man, who seemed to have his own methods of determining her mental health. And because he seemed optimistic, Grace was beginning to feel the same. Yet she still harbored a darkness that she couldn’t quite understand. She could only hope it might fade away in time.
The move to her new house six months earlier had been difficult, coming so soon after her hospitalization. But her mother, who stayed with her a number of weeks, had declared keeping busy was the best thing for overcoming depression. She had no faith in designer drugs, thinking they masked the problem. Grace had only recently discontinued the medicine provided by her doctor; they both believed she was now over any suicidal impulses. She also ascribed, somewhat, to her mother’s view and had thrown herself into the move to the miniature half-timbered and stucco house in historic Foxhill. It was an uncanny reminder of England and the
17th century manor house where she’d grown up. Her own place was built in the 1980s. It met the neighborhood’s requirement to reproduce or at least compliment the original structures, in this case the 1920s houses still standing. Even those were considered late for Foxhill, which had been in development since the early 1800s. Grace, however, was pleased to have found her own niche in this historic neighborhood.
Grace had agreed to go with Tessa this Thursday evening to a meeting of the Foxhill Association, a gathering she’d avoided by saying she’d been busy getting settled in her house as well as getting her momentum back up at the library. Yet she was aware of her need to restore her confidence by reaching out beyond her comfort zone. As she considered this plunge into a new group, it reminded her of going each year to the English seaside as a child. She remembered the roar of the waves, the ponderous lift and subsiding of the swell, the piquant odors of the sea, and above all, facing the unknown. She’d always felt a little anxiety at first sight of the vastness, coupled with excitement and anticipation. For Tessa’s sake and her own, she would not funk this outing.
But Tessa, understanding Grace’s qualms, promised she could slip into the room and remain virtually unnoticed if she wished. Before first Tessa and then Grace moved to Nashville, they had become friends while working together at the library in Tarryton, Tennessee, Tessa’s home town. So now at Tessa’s behest, Grace would be inserting herself into this new group. She watched for her friend’s car from the living room window, feeling silly at the apprehension that she couldn’t quite tamp down. It was a silly fear since there was no reason for anyone in the neighborhood to know her history, and that was the real problem that dogged her–a residual embarrassment. She’d been fortunate in having friends like Tessa and Frank, her boss Rob, and even good old Hal, whom she had treated abominably, none of them capable of gossiping about that unfortunate episode in her recent past.
Grace sighed, remembering almost against her will her misbegotten relations with Hal–and his famous Scandinavian reserve. If she had to be indiscreet with anyone, better him than anyone else. Well, that episode was over, and over quickly without any repercussions except shame–at least on her part. Hal was now married most happily to his Mihaela, for whom he’d been carrying a torch even while dating Grace.
In thinking of Hal, she was reminded of an untranslatable Norwegian word describing desirable qualities she’d come across when reading a biography of a Norwegian writer. The word exemplified Hal and seemed typically Scandinavian: not wishing to put oneself above others; in control of one’s emotions; and most importantly, being a kind and thoughtful person. That was Hal Stensson, all right, and she wished him well with his young and spunky wife. For herself, she thought she would prefer a man that engendered a bit more excitement. No wonder she and Hal hadn’t really hit it off, both being–what?–too northern European in emotional expression? Perhaps.
Tessa’s car was waiting at the curb, and thoughts of a past that Grace hoped had really passed went on the back burner as she exited the house. Under a globe spruce near the steps she spotted again the large grey cat curled up and sound asleep. She wondered again whose it was and why it had been roaming the neighborhood these last few weeks. As Grace slipped into Tessa’s car, the two friends greeted each other casually. Tessa was undoubtedly as aware of Grace’s appearance as she was of her friend’s, Grace knew from experience. Yet neither had any sense of competition. Although Grace in her early thirties was a little older, she wasn’t bothered by that, particularly since her ordeal hadn’t seemed to have noticeably aged her. In fact, she was happy enough with her honey blonde looks, enhanced by careful makeup and clothes, but she thought Tessa a natural beauty with her rarer auburn hair and those luminous grey eyes.
“I like your hair that shorter length,” she said to Tessa. “Does Frank?” Some men, she knew, had a fondness for long hair and objected to their wife’s cutting it.
“Frank?” Tessa laughed. “Now, Grace, you know he never objects to anything I do with my hair. I’m lucky that way.”
“That’s for sure,” Grace said, giving a little sigh. “That’s what I’d like, an adoring man who isn’t a Milquetoast.”
“It goes both ways for us,” Tessa said. “We’re pretty much free to follow our own little personal stars if we believe they’re important. Not that we don’t consider each other’s wishes, of course, but we do enjoy a kind of marital autonomy.”
“Now, Tessa, you must have some disagreements, some differences of opinions.”
Tessa shook her head. “No, not really. We talk things out, and if Frank makes more sense, I go along with him. If I do, according to his lights, then he sides with me. I can’t quite explain it, but it works.”
“You really are lucky, I guess. I’m still working on finding the right man and using the right formula so we could get along together when I do find him.”
“Don’t give up hope. But I will say this,” Tessa said, looking at Grace with a smile, “most of us, I fear, have something of the child about us and want our own way on certain matters. A good partner has to sense what they are and not object. And I give Frank the reins if there’s a real dispute. I maintain he’s the head of our household, but he wants me to be happy, and that mix seems to work fine.” She pulled into the driveway of the Foxhill estate, built in the early part of the 19th century, once a large plantation but now reduced to only a few acres. They turned toward a broad, graveled area for parking to one side of the house. “Looks like a nice crowd even this early, maybe because we have a fine president.”
“I recognized his name.” Grace had only skimmed over the newsletter that she occasionally read on-line. She knew the organization had events to raise money to help any needy owners to renovate or do necessary yard work. When she had taken up residence in Foxhill, someone named Martha Metcalf had called on her with a packet, including the rules of the Foxhill Association, which Grace did read carefully, deeming them reasonable and important.
“Yes, Alejandro Arenas,” Tessa said. “As a state representative, he’s gotten a reputation as a real dynamo, uncovering dirt in state government. Now I understand he’s throwing his hat in the ring and will be running for governor.”
“I’ve read about that scandal he exposed last year. I don’t know all the details.”
“That was quite a coup,” Tessa explained, as they walked toward the front of the mansion. “He ferreted out under-the-table payoffs to lure certain businesses to the state as well as other monetary schemes for the governor’s political benefit. It’s fine to make deals for businesses interested in coming here, like tax write-offs or property bargains, that sort of thing, but it has to be above board, not favoring any one seller or buyer, for that matter. Abuses in those areas are what Arenas uncovered, which got the governor thrown out of office. I hear Alex is onto something new that he’s going to reveal shortly.”
“How to be very, very unpopular,” Grace said dryly. “But then, he’s a lawyer, isn’t he? So he’s probably used to rancor from certain quarters anyway.” She looked up at the tall facade of the house and exclaimed, “This is lovely, isn’t it! I do admire that neoclassical design.”
Tessa agreed it had a timeless beauty as they climbed several steps to the front door where she gave a sharp tug to a bell pull.
An elderly woman admitted them, Tessa introducing Grace to the owner of Foxhill, Mrs. Walker; Tessa went on to explain that from the founding of the Homeowners Association, the Walkers had offered the house for meetings. They stepped into a wide hall with a broad staircase on the right and a double doorway to the left that led to a large parlor where people had begun to gather. Grace saw the room at first as a blur of furniture, the walls with large, framed portraits, and people dotted about. Farther to the back, huge pocket doors had been opened to nearly their full extent, providing additional seating space in the back parlor. As Grace and Tessa stood for a moment in the doorway, a woman gestured to them from a Chippendale-style sofa across the room. Tessa murmured to Grace in an aside, “Martha will insist on us joining her. Sorry.”
“I remember her,” Grace said, following her friend. “She stopped by to give me the information packet when I moved in.” She gave a bright smile to the dark haired, attractive woman, who had moved to one end of the sofa.
“You’re Grace Madison,” Martha said, after introducing herself. She greeted Tessa, who sat down beside her, with a pat on the hand and a smile as well. “I’m glad you two are here early. It’s getting to be quite a crowd at these meetings.”
“I think everyone wants to listen to our local celebrity,” Tessa said, indicating to Tessa a group of three people at the front end of the room, conferring with one another. Two women with a man between them were seated behind a table and were obviously the officers of the organization.
Grace, sitting at the end of the sofa, looked at the man of the hour, as she was beginning to think of him. He was darkly handsome, probably in his mid-thirties, she guessed, wearing a pale blue dress shirt with an open collar–Alex Arenas, as he was referred to on television news stories. She shrugged to herself, wondering what could be so mesmerizing about him that would get people to leave the comfort of their homes at night for a boring meeting. She couldn’t help but be deeply suspicious of that type of man–powerful and attractive to both men and women–especially women. She had to admit that probably her own history had affected her judgment of men. After her engagement ended when she discovered her fiancé had been stepping out on her, she had moved to Nashville to start a new life. And even though it had been almost two years since their breakup, her bitterness still remained. She wondered if Arenas was married and if he was faithful to his poor wife.
“Is his wife here?” she asked Tessa in a whisper, gesturing with a nod to the front.
“No wife,” Tessa whispered back. “He supposedly has been devoting himself to his various interests.”
“Oh, that is sad, with only groupies to keep him company,” Grace said in a low, ironic tone. Yet she knew it was possible for people to keep their minds and energies engaged to the exclusion of emotional commitments. And he was obviously an extremely dedicated and disciplined fellow. Then Grace’s attention was captured by a couple that stood for a moment in the doorway; she recognized Hal Stensson and his Romanian-born wife, Mihaela, who was obviously pregnant.
The couple gazed around the room, looking for seats, until Hal saw the group of three, all looking at him and Mihaela. He gave them a friendly wave. Martha called out, “Hello, you two,” and Grace smiled and nodded at him. There, she thought with relief, that wasn’t so bad. Giving them another glance, she watched the couple find chairs farther on down the room. She and Hal hadn’t seen each other since his visit to the hospital had cleared the air between them.
“Do you ever see Hal and his bride?” she asked Tessa.
“Not much. I hear they’ve gotten involved with an arty crowd, mainly through the Tremaine Gallery people. The owners are good friends of Hal’s. And then Mihaela’s an artist, too, and takes part in various exhibits at the gallery.”
More people were arriving with the front room filling up. An attractive black couple approached Tessa, who introduced them as Robert and Rita Shepherd. “These are my neighbors who adopted my protégé,” Tessa said to Grace. She’d heard the story of the rescue of the boy from the projects and his new home and school.
“How’s Louis getting along?” Grace asked politely.
“He’s loving the school,” Rita said with a smile at her husband, “isn’t he, Bob?”
“This year is much better, now that he’s acquainted with more students,” Bob Shepherd said. “And he’s turned into a great little soccer player, too. Top scorer.”
Tessa expressed her pleasure at the boy’s success, after which the couple moved on to the back room to take their seats, for it was close to meeting time.
Grace’s attention became riveted on the president as he called the meeting to order and asked first the secretary and then the treasurer for their reports. His voice was deep and strong and easily carried to the back parlor. He moved efficiently through various items on a rather limited agenda. She thought she knew why he had become so popular wherever he went. His style was easy but organized, friendly but serious, and he also had a nice smile. No contentious remarks slowed down the presentation, which included a discussion about the neighborhood garden party event the end of May with tickets to be sold to the public.
“Whose gardens?” Grace said in a low voice to Tessa.
“Some beautiful ones, I’m sure. Not mine, I can tell you that.”
After the meeting, which lasted less than an hour, Tessa steered Grace, who had started to make her way to the door, toward the front of the room where a little crowd had gathered around the officers. “I’d like to introduce you to our president,” she said.
But Grace took hold of Tessa’s arm and stopped her. “No, no, please, Tessa, I’d rather not. Maybe some other time.” She hated to disappoint her more gregarious friend, but seeing those hovering around Arenas, Grace felt a repulsion to join them. Groupies, in fact.
“All right,” Tessa said. “Let’s go.”
But then the cluster blocking Arenas from view opened up suddenly and Grace heard the president say, “Tessa, have you brought a guest? We should have introduced her.”
“Hi, Alex,” Tessa said. “This is my friend Grace, who’s pretty recently moved to Foxhill.” She drew Grace forward, “And this is Alex Arenas, Grace. You have something in common. Both of you have parents that immigrated to America.”
“Really?” Arenas said, shaking Grace’s hand. “And were you born here like I was?”
“No,” Grace said with a smile, “I came over after my early schooling and attended university here.”
Although no more was mentioned about native countries, Arenas asked a few more questions about Grace’s house before she and Tessa moved off, leaving the field for others seeming to be silently devouring Arenas’s words and who were now clamoring for his attention.
“Well!” Grace said, laughing once they were outside. “The great man speaks to the little people, and so pleasantly, too. I can tell he is quite practiced.”
“Now don’t be cynical about him, Miss Suspicious,” Tessa chided. “He’s all that he seems, as far as I can tell. I hear he’s seeking the nomination of his party for governor.” She greeted people along their walk to the car, and then she asked Grace, “Aren’t you glad you went to the meeting?”
“I am, actually,” Grace admitted, opening the car door. “It was an agreeable group of people, and maybe I can do something to help out at the garden party. I’ll call the chairwoman.”
“And your opinion of Alex? Be honest, now,” Tessa said, steering the car out of the parking area.
“Oh, I can see the appeal, ” Grace said. “He’ll be the next governor with those looks, his intelligence, and that natural authority. Seems too good to be true.”
“I think he’s true enough. Type A personality, of course. So he’s always moving upward and onward. He can’t help himself.” They both chuckled at Tessa’s characterization.
“He said he was born here, though he didn’t say where his parents came from.”
“They’re Cubans, who arrived as children with their parents after the Castro takeover, according to a little bio I read in the paper. They met in Florida and married and had two kids, the oldest being Alex.”
When they reached Grace’s house, she invited Tessa in for coffee or a glass of wine, but Tessa declined, saying she needed to get home. “I’m so glad you came with me to the meeting, Grace. I hope you’ll consider going to the next one, too.”
“Yes, it actually was a pleasant evening. Thanks for pushing me. I needed that.”
It wasn’t bad at all, she thought to herself. As she went toward the front door, a slight movement alerted her to the silvery figure in the moonlight that emerged from beneath the shrubbery. The cat again. She wondered why had it been hanging around so much lately. It was skittish, probably from being chased off, though it was healthy looking as if it was well fed.
Then Saturday morning, she had occasion to find out more about the cat from her next door neighbor, Marcia Lassiter, who was emerging from her house at the same time as Grace went to fetch the morning paper. The cat in question was in front of the vacant house across the street, down a couple of doors. A For Sale sign was posted on the front lawn.
The women greeted each other and then Grace, after retrieving her paper, had noticed the animal looking at her. She called to Marcia, “Do you have any idea whose cat that is? It keeps sleeping in my shrubbery. I don’t remember seeing it around my house before.”
“I do,” Marcia said, turning to look at the cat, which continued to sit like the sphinx and stare at them from across the street. “It belonged to those people who moved out. They just left the poor thing to fend for itself. I’ve given it some fish and chicken scraps now and then, but I can’t take it in because of my dog, of course. He wouldn’t go for that!”
“Oh, what a sad thing,” Grace said, rather shocked. “I hate to hear of that kind of animal neglect. It does look pretty well fed.”
“I’ve seen it go down into the sewer for rats or lizards or something,” Marcia said, going to her front door. “She’s getting protein, anyway.”
Grace stood for a moment looking at the cat, a lonely female then, who looked back at Grace and then rose to its feet in a hopeful movement. Relenting suddenly, Grace, her throat tightening with emotion, indicated assent with a wave of her hand and softly called, “Come on, Miss Kitty.” As if it had been given a reprieve, the cat bounded across the street toward Grace, arriving at her feet and gazed at her for instructions. Tears sprang to Grace’s eyes. It wanted a friend, to belong again.
“We’re a pair, aren’t we,” she said, opening the door and inviting the sleek animal inside. Grace locked the door behind her and then looked down at the cat. “I can find a can of tuna fish for you today, at any rate. Are you going to be Miss Kitty? Is that all right?” The cat looked up at Grace and then purred, rubbing against her leg. Grace laughed. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
Growing up, Grace had not had a pet, no animals to love. A border collie worked with the hired man who attended her father’s small herd of cattle and other farm matters on the small estate. The dog slept in a doghouse on the back porch. But Bounder hadn’t been a real pet for the girls, more attached to the man who had trained him to work cows. Her father had been a busy executive and her mother a determined worker among the local charities. Both Grace and her older sister had been sent off to boarding school or as it was called, “public” school, at what Grace considered the too young ages of seven and nine. A thoroughly ridiculous English custom, she had thought many times, which hardly fostered intimacy with home and hearth.
Now with Miss Kitty to care for, Grace felt her basically affectionate nature surge toward the animal. She wondered if she’d had a different, a more American upbringing would she have been so self-contained around people, so closed in that it took an animal to bring out her emotions. Much of her early life in England had centered around the rigid schooling and magical “vacs” at their lovely old home, where she and Bettina had enjoyed romping around the small holding, experiencing village life, trips to London, and visiting the seaside. She couldn’t say that it was a dreadful upbringing–of course not. It was privileged, and she knew it.
While the girls were completing their prep school education, their parents had moved to the United States, her father having made useful contacts at a conference which encouraged him to bring his skills to a venue with more opportunities. Eventually, Grace and her sister, moving to the U.S. and getting their university degrees, began their respective careers, Bettina as a nurse, Grace as an analyst, specializing in languages, who took a job with the State Department, and in her late twenties fell deeply in love for the first time. She had left D.C. and followed her fiancé, whom she had thought of as a miraculous healer, to Tarryton, Tennessee, where he’d been appointed chief surgeon of a county hospital system. But the romance went south for reasons connected to John’s ego when she’d discovered he wasn’t faithful to her. He’d tried to convince her it was a momentary aberration, a madness fostered by selfishness, and he begged her forgiveness. She couldn’t or wouldn’t do it.
Grace had re-educated herself by additional schooling in library science while living in Tarryton and had become head librarian there after Tessa vacated the position to move to Nashville. The work suited her, so when she rejected John and any rehabilitation on his part, she sought similar work elsewhere. Keeping in touch with her friend, who encouraged her to try Nashville, she obtained a heavily competitive position at Vanderbilt University and began making friends ever so slowly, as was her style. Yet, depression had haunted her and she spiraled downward until she hit bottom.
Now feeling more confident and comfortable after meeting a few more people at the Homeowners Association, she was a good as her word, checking the website for the garden party chairwoman’s number. She then called her to volunteer her services. It surely wouldn’t be particularly onerous or needing a horticultural expert, she hoped. Much to her surprise, Nancy Woodruff, who had taken on the responsibility for the event, jumped on Grace’s offer to help by saying, “You are a life saver, Grace. I just had someone very reliable opt out of helping that day due to out of town guests she’s expecting, so I definitely can put you to work at Alex’s.”
“Alex’s?” Grace asked, a little startled. “You mean Arenas, the president’s house? His garden is on the tour?”
“Oh, yes, he’s a fabulous gardener, and actually, it was his idea to have this garden party as a fund raiser, which we hope will become a tradition for Foxhill.”
“I’m surprised the women aren’t lining up to help out at his place,” Grace said, trying to keep her tone good humored. She couldn’t help, though, wondering about the vacant position.
“Yes, if I put out the word,” Nancy said, laughing, “I expect I’d get a few hands raised. This just happened to me, not five minutes ago. So your call is well-timed and wonderful. You’ll be working the afternoon hours if that’s all right.”
“Yes, that’s fine. Just give me the details as to my responsibilities, and I’ll be very happy to do what I can.” And she was. It seemed an omen that she would learn more about her neighborhood, and maybe she’d even get to know the wonder boy better.
“Mainly you’ll be punching the guests’ tickets for admission. Eight gardens are on the tour with refreshments served on the Foxhill estate grounds. I’ve prepared a sheet with historic information so you can inform anyone who’s interested about the Foxhill neighborhood and encourage membership. I’ll send you everything you’ll need.”
Grace asked, “Who will answer questions, if they arise, about the flowers? I’m afraid that’s not my strength.”
“Oh, no, we wouldn’t ask that of you. The owners have agreed to be on hand to explain to visitors, and in Alex’s case, he’ll be assisted by Stephanie Morrison. You may remember her from the meeting. She’s our Association secretary.”
Grace recalled a youngish woman next to the president at the front of the room with long dark hair, leaning in toward Arenas to occasionally confer. After reading the minutes in a high, childish voice, she remained quiet for the rest of the meeting as she took notes. Grace thanked the chairwoman amid a return of thanks, and after relinquishing the phone, she congratulated herself on stepping up to the plate and getting herself involved. It shouldn’t be bad at all, particularly with her duties. The visitors would be strangers, needing reassurance as they entered the garden. That should be an interesting afternoon. She felt unaccountably cheered by her decision to get involved, and she thought it was a hopeful sign.
Following the meeting, for several weeks Grace began noticing articles in the Tennessean and on-line sources about Arenas’s latest work in illegal adoptions, centered around, according to the stories, Mexican and Central American countries. More and more had appeared to have nefarious connections, and the adoptions were hidden under layers of bureaucracy. Were at least some of the babies stolen? Had they been purchased for a pittance from poor families and sold at exorbitant prices to desperate families in Nashville and elsewhere? These were the questions being investigated by Arenas and his staff. They were ostensibly working for families who had become suspicious of the enterprises.
But in the meantime, Grace had practical matters involving Miss Kitty to attend to. The afternoon she had taken her in, Grace went shopping for a litter box and kitty litter as well as a variety of cat food. She had no idea which food would be preferred by her new friend, but she would give her options. And friend she was, almost instantly. Miss Kitty hadn’t yet begun sitting on Grace’s lap, but she found a chair she liked and took up residence there while Grace watched TV, staring intermittently at her new mistress with bright, amber eyes. She purred while she ate, which amused Grace, and after an evening outing of fifteen or twenty minutes, the cat was ready to come in for the night. It was all very satisfactory for them both, Grace thought. She sought information about a vet from her neighbor and took the cat in for shots and a check up.
The next month rolled by quickly for Grace, who found herself looking forward to the Foxhill Garden Party, even as a toiler in the field, she thought laughingly to herself. She felt some anticipation at the thought of perhaps getting better acquainted with Arenas. She wanted to see if he really was what he was cracked up to be. Was he indeed gubernatorial material or just a show boater who loved attention? She hoped he wouldn’t be taking the afternoon off while the other person, the Association secretary, who might, just might, have a crush on him, took over.
Grace found herself thoroughly engaged at work in ordering books, including electronic material, for Fall Semester. Then it was Thursday evening before the Foxhill Garden Party, and she had gotten out her folder of material to memorize. It wouldn’t look good, she’d decided, to have to read off the historical information like a tyro. She wanted to have a professional demeanor, which in this case meant knowing what to tell guests and how to answer any questions they might have. This was her first real outside interest since moving to Nashville, which seemed impossible when she thought about it. Time, time, time, how it surprised her by its movement forward like a train carrying her from and maybe toward romance and adventure.
One of the stanzas to a hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past” sung regularly at her school in England suddenly arose as if embedded in her brain, providing another image:
Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
She had had a life of sorts prior to moving here, but it had shriveled up behind her as if it hadn’t mattered after all. What had she really accomplished? Whom had she affected to the good? Had she not chosen the “better part”? But wasn’t that the message in the hymn, that one’s former life shouldn’t be looked at with longing or regret? Pray God more was to be her destiny. Unlike those who dreaded receiving the so-called Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times,” Grace hoped she was ready for something different. But what it was to be, she couldn’t imagine.